One-Minute Book Reviews

May 18, 2009

Do Readers Want ‘A Tragedy With a Happy Ending’?

Filed under: Novels — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 2:39 am
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“What the American public wants in the theater is a tragedy with a happy ending,” William Dean Howells said. Do people want this in novels, too? I gave a talk on The Story of Edgar Sawtelle at a library not long ago, and some members of the audience who loved the novel nonetheless disliked the downbeat ending. The reaction surprised me, because the reviews and publicity have made clear that the book has parallels to Hamlet, a tragedy in which corpses litter the stage in the last scene. Have the movies primed us to expect improbably happy endings? Or do the negative reactions have more to do with current events such as the recession?

May 7, 2009

A Dog, a Corpse and a Wisteria Vine – The Most Bizarre Narrators in Fiction?

Filed under: News,Novels — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 12:48 am
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Some people who liked The Story of Edgar Sawtelle were nonetheless put off by its mix of human and canine narrators, including a four-footed stand-in for Ophelia in David Wroblewski’s Hamlet-influenced novel.  Almondine isn’t the most unusual narrator in fiction. Clyde Edgerton’s The Floatplane Notebooks (Ballantine, 1989) is told partly from the viewpoint of a wisteria wine. Then there’s William Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying, a novel about a troubled clan trying to bury its dead matriarch. Faulkner tells the story from the viewpoint of each family member, including the corpse.

September 22, 2008

A Few Words on ‘Hamlet’ — Were Your English Teachers Right When They Told You That the Prince of Denmark Was a Man of Inaction?

Filed under: Plays — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 3:22 pm
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A lot of people may be returning to Shakespeare’s greatest tragedy now that Oprah has selected the Hamlet-influenced The Story of Edgar Sawtelle for her book club. And I may say more about that play closer to the date of the discussion of David Wroblewski’s novel. For now, I’ll mention one of the most perceptive scholarly comments I’ve read about the play: Many of us learned in school that Hamlet is “a man of inaction,” defined by his hesitations, but you could make a strong case that the opposite is true.

After becoming suspicious that his uncle killed his father in order to marry his mother, Hamlet vows revenge and devotes himself to achieving it. When traveling players arrive at Elsinore castle, he arranges quickly for them to put on a play that will confirm his beliefs, giving us the line: “…the play’s the thing/ Wherein I’ll catch the conscience of the king.” Hamlet certainly deliberates, as in the “To be or not to be” soliloquy in which he ponders whether it’s better to live or die when we don’t know what death will bring. But it might be more accurate to describe the Prince of Denmark as contemplative, meditative, or ruminative, words that describe his thoughts, rather than as a man of “inaction,” which describes his behavior.

© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

September 20, 2008

Late Night With Jan Harayda – Oprah Picks a Mixed Doggie Bag for Her Club — A Sentimental ‘Hamlet’-Influenced First Novel Told Partly from the Point of View of Dogs

Oprah’s latest book-club pick is a mixed doggie bag – one part well-told yarn and one part sentimental twaddle with a dash of the paranormal and forced parallels with Hamlet. The Story of Edgar Sawtelle is the tale of a mute Wisconsin farm boy who goes on the lam after he becomes convinced that his uncle murdered his father, a suspicion that sets another tragedy in motion. And this first novel by David Wroblewski has more to offer than the cosmic gibberish of Oprah’s most recent pick, Eckhart Tolle’s A New Earth, the grand prize winner in the 2008 Delete Key Awards for the year’s worst writing in books But The Story of Edgar Sawtelle also suffers from mawkish scenes told from the point of view of dogs and from its implicit attribution of moral virtues to them. With its mix of family secrets and childhood pain — and other-worldly conversations with the dead — this novel was such a predictable choice for Oprah that the publishing news blog Galley Cat did predict it days ago

© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

September 5, 2008

And Today’s Gusher Award for Achievement in Hyperbole in Book Reviewing Goes to …

Filed under: Gusher Awards — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 11:08 am
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The Gusher Awards are back after a summer hiatus of a couple of weeks. This week’s award goes to …

“The Great American Novel is something like a unicorn – rare and wonderful, and maybe no more of a notion. Yet every few years or so, we trip across some semblance of one. Oof! What’s this? Why, it’s The Story of Edgar Sawtelle (Ecco), a sprawling skein of a yarn about a farm nestled up against the forest primeval …”
June 2008, Elle

Unicorns are not “rare and wonderful” and “maybe no more of a notion” — they are mythical and there’s no “maybe” about whether they are “a notion.” Mixing the simile in the first sentence with that metaphor of “a sprawling skein of a yarn” makes it worse, and “Great American Novel” and “forest primeval” are clichés. There’s been a lot of talk this year about the decline of book reviewing in newspapers, and women’s magazines aren’t helping with prose like this.

Gusher Awards appear on Fridays on One-Minute Book Reviews unless no praise went far enough over the top that week to qualify. For a different view of David Wroblewski’s Hamlet-influenced first novel, see the review of The Story of Edgar Sawtelle written in iambic trimeter verse that appeared on this site on Aug. 28 A reading group guide to the novel was posted on Sept. 3

© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

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